Should you focus on the long-term, or on the short-term? Is it better for a company to be innovative, or to maintain consistency over time? Which is more important–investing time and energy in your work or investing time and energy in your family?

If you find yourself struggling to decide, you are not alone. The truth is that, given each of the above choices, both answers are right, but only some of the time. Choosing either answer by itself will result in your ultimate failure. The only true right answer is both.

Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very good at Both/And thinking. After all, we’ve spent many years in schools that gave us good grades for getting the right answer, not for waffling back and forth between two competing choices. And in our organizations, we frequently demonstrate the same “one winner” behaviors—we offer the job to only the top applicant (even if each applicant had different attributes that we really liked and wanted); we choose to go forward only on one innovative new product; we land on a single health insurance provider for our employees. And then we live with that choice.

Sometimes it is necessary to come to closure-to decide and move on. Other times, this Either/Or way of problem solving that many of us are truly skilled at isn’t quite adequate to the complex decisions we are faced with. Do I spend my time planning, or executing? Who needs my attention—our customers, or our internal team members? And so on. What’s a leader to do? As it happens, the answer is simple: embrace both.

It makes sense. If you strive to get diversity in your team members, on your board, and in the customers who use your products, wouldn’t you expect differences to arise? And when smart people feel strongly, yet land on completely different answers, isn’t it likely that they could both be right? To be effective in this complex world, we have to be able to navigate paradox, to create solutions that are agile, adaptive, and multi-faceted. And we might have to recognize that navigating paradox is not a “one and done” approach.

Navigating paradox can mean embracing a moving target, as in “this year, our goal is to focus our efforts on a single product”, and then the following year complementing that choice with “now we are going to expand on the product line, add diversity to our offerings.” That’s not wishy-washy; it’s navigating paradox. It’s recognizing that, for most companies and leaders, focusing and expanding are both critical for sustainable success.

Paradox, polarity, and wicked dilemma are all names for this same phenomenon—the places in life and work where Either/Or thinking just won’t do, where you have to find a way to get the best of both. And while you may think you aren’t skilled at this, just consider your own breathing. Every minute, 12-15 times a minute, you navigate this simple polarity of inhaling and then exhaling, then inhaling, only to exhale again. It’s obvious that if you choose between inhaling and exhaling, it won’t (quite literally) be a sustainable choice. You have to do both.

There are other polarities you may notice that you also are navigating well already. Perhaps you are especially good at focusing on and valuing people, yet also consistently pay attention to results. You might be aware that you do a good job managing your time—creating an optimal flow of activity & rest so that you stay energized and engaged, but not exhausted.

While you are handling some of these paradoxes seamlessly, though, chances are that you probably see a few places where you are not. You may have such a strong preference for one value or behavior that you have completely ignored its equally essential partner.

For me, one place this happens is with the polarity of self-reliance & asking for help. I’m very comfortable and familiar with relying on myself. I grew up in a family with four siblings and there just wasn’t enough of my parents to go around. Everyone did chores and we all learned how to fend for ourselves.

Fast forward a few decades, however, and take on a leadership role, and I slowly recognized that self-reliance was no longer working. It was like breathing in without remembering to breath out again. It worked for a little while, but I was dying a little each day as a result of not appreciating the importance of seeing and navigating this paradox. Most importantly, I was disappointing others—either not meeting commitments because there was too much on my plate, or failing to give others a chance to stretch and grow by not delegating responsibilities they were ready for. So I learned to ask for help, and lo and behold, I was far more effective as a leader. I could still rely on myself when it was called for, but now that skill of self-reliance was partnered with an equally valuable behavior of relying on others. Whew. I’d finally become a true team player.

So what can you do to get better at navigating paradox?

1. The first step is awareness. Recognize the danger of being absolutely sure you are right, especially when at least one other person approaches it differently. It might be you’ve wandered into a polarity, that you both are right, and the best solution will incorporate elements of each perspective.

2. Second, practice recognizing all the polarities/paradoxes that exist in your day to day. Keep a list of the tensions you experience—Quality or Quantity, Care for other or Care for self, Focus on your people or Focus on your results. As you become skilled in recognizing paradox, you’ll be likely to listen more carefully to differing perspectives and they, in turn, will often listen more readily to yours. You’ll naturally start to get the best of both.

Bottom line: Not all problems can be solved with a single, enduring solution. Many of the situations you are dealing with are complex, and don’t lend themselves to Either/Or resolutions.

The most effective leaders learn to embrace Both/And thinking to make the best decisions, be the kind of leader who others want to follow, and to generate the results that their companies want.


Ann Deaton

Ann Deaton

After her first career in health care, Ann earned her Leadership Coaching Certification from the Newfield Network and the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coaching Federation. Ann specializes in coaching individuals, teams, and groups experiencing significant change and growth. Her strengths are in creating the kinds of rich and open conversations that expand perspectives and ideas - then holding people accountable for taking bold action, with greater passion and ease than before. Ann takes advantage of her her deep knowledge of neuroscience and adult learning to design programs that yield sustainable impact for our clients. Since 2005, she has served on the faculty for The University of Texas Executive Coaching Program. Ann also teaches one day sessions for the Center for Corporate Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and Central Virginia's Partnership for Nonprofit Excellence.

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